On December 24, 1818 the first performance of “Silent Night” took place in the church of St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf, Austria. “Silent Night” was composed by Franz Gruber with words by Joseph Mohr. The young priest Mohr had written the lyrics in 1816 in Mariapfarr, another small town in Salzburg.
Frans Gruber was an elementary school music teacher. He was born on November 25, 1787, the son of weavers and worked as a weaver until the age of 18. In 1805 he began his musical training with the church organist of Burghausen and in 1807 he became a teacher in Arnsdorf as well as church caretaker and organist.
Joseph Mohr was born in Salzburg on December 11, 1792, to an unmarried embroiderer, Anna Schoiberin, and Franz Mohr, a mercenary soldier and deserter, who abandoned Joseph’s mother before his birth.
The vicar of Salzburg Cathedral enabled Mohr to have an education and encouraged him in music. As a boy, Mohr served as a singer and violinist in the choirs of the University Church. In 1811, he entered the seminary. Since he was of illegitimate birth, a special dispensation was required for him to attend seminary, but on August 21, 1815, Mohr graduated and was ordained as a priest.
Father Mohr was a generous man who donated most of his salary to charity. He created a fund to allow children from poor families to attend school and set up a system for the care of the elderly. He died in 1848, at the age of 55.
On Christmas Eve in 1818, Mohr walked the three kilometres from his home in Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit his friend Gruber. Mohr brought with him a poem he had written some two years earlier. He needed a carol for the Christmas Eve midnight Mass that was only a few hours away and hoped his friend could set his poem to music. Gruber composed the melody for Mohr’s “Stille Nacht” in just a few hours. The song was sung at Midnight Mass in a simple arrangement for guitar and choir.
As the hymn gained popularity, many people assumed it was composed by a famous musician, and it is variously attributed to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. However, a manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr’s handwriting and dated by researchers as c. 1820. It states that Mohr wrote the words in 1816 when he was assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria, and shows that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818. This is the earliest manuscript that exists and the only one in Mohr’s handwriting.
So our most beloved carol, which was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011, was written by a poor school teacher and a humble and generous priest.